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Well, it’s obvious isn’t it?

You Tube has a fascinating clip of Paul Simon discussing where the melody and harmony for the song Still Crazy After All These Years should go after the initial verse and chorus.  Even if you are not into music theory, do listen to this – and don’t be put off by the irritating (to me!) Dick Cavett.  Not only is it interesting as an insight into Paul Simon’s approach to composing songs but it is also tantalising in the sense that we know where the song did go.  In retrospect, it seems inevitable – and the other ideas on the metaphorical cutting floor seem implausible.
Paul SimonWhich brings me to a question that has intrigued me for many years – namely whether there’s any inevitability about how melodies develop from an initial idea.  I used to think there was – but increasingly conclude there isn’t.
I have some history here.  More years ago than I care to remember, I was set the task of writing a further 24 bars following the initial statement of the duet for soprano and alto (‘Et In Unum Deum’) from the B minor Mass by JS Bach.  What my tutor didn’t realise was that I already knew the work well and had a good working knowledge of how the duet developed.  Try as I might to come up with something plausible – but not a carbon copy of the original – I failed spectacularly.  It seemed to me that there was an inevitability about how the melody progressed in the original, with the solo lines weaving above and below each other.  Fortunately my tutor did not trigger the Plagiarism Policy at that point!
My considered opinion now is that there is often a short term inevitability (i.e. where the melody goes immediately after the first few notes) but virtually no inevitability about what happens after that.  Take the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, for example (as used in the Second World War to signal V for Victory in Morse Code).

If there was a ‘freeze frame’ at that point, I suspect several people would correctly guess the answering four notes.  But, if you were Ludwig, what would you have written next?  It’s not obvious, let alone inevitable, is it?
Regular readers of my posts will know that I take the view that Antonio Vivaldi sometimes composed on autopilot.  If you are given a phrase from one of his sonatas or concertos you can often guess correctly the next few bars, as he is an habitual user of sequences (repeating the same phrase at a different pitch).  The challenge here is to guess when he will end the sequence – and where precisely the melody will go next.  So even then it’s not quite as predictable as it appears.
And while we are on the general topic of melody writing, I was sad to read today of the death of the film composer John Barry.  Listen out for how often his scores are described as ‘memorable’.  And it’s true.  Once heard, tunes such as Born Free and Goldfinger lodge in the brain and seem to have been around for ever.  Perhaps they have.  But getting into whether composing is about discovering something that was in some sense there already or about bringing to birth something entirely new will have to wait for another day!

Posted by author: Andrew Fitzgibbon
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One thought on “Well, it’s obvious isn’t it?

  • Ooooo I see what you mean about Dick Cavett, even more irritating than his Hendrix interview.
    It struck me listening to it, just him and the guitar, that it could easily have been a James Taylor song, like Sweet Baby James, for example.
    That made me think that particular song writers favour particular keys, changes and intervals, which perhaps comes from a combination of what’s inspired them, what feels ‘right’ to them and their technical knowledge and abilities; which all adds up to their particular style and what we expect of their music, predict for it and are indeed disappointed if we don’t get it.
    In terms of where to go next in a melody line you’ve only got a choice of eleven places to go, twelve if you are going to stay on the same note. It’s surprising to me that their aren’t more plagiarism cases.
    The other day I was playing Billy Preston’s, ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’, singing along in my head, and suddenly, to my surprise, I was singing a different song. I’d never made the connection before how similar the music for the two songs was; perhaps because I associated the two with slightly different genres, through the lyrics.
    You also find it in the same artist’s work, songs that you’d thought were distinct. in accompaniment. turn out to be very similar when you are working out how to play them, it’s just tempo and slight variations in the changes that separate them.
    I wonder how much the 60s dictum, that if you managed to get a hit record then the follow up should be basically the same song with a couple of tweaks, had to do with this.
    Of course when it comes to country music then it’s all based on the same few chords and changes, and accompaniments to melody lines, and indeed melody lines, can be almost interchangeable, which is what you would expect from a people’s music that needs to be easily performable, but it doesn’t effect its efficacy and repeatability; production, arrangement, tempo, inflection and sentiment in the lyrics keep it fresh for its fans.
    Personally I think I would find it impossible to write something that wasn’t a rehash, in some way, of what I’ve heard; so I don’t. Hahaha
    I’m quite happy approximating what talented others have already written, whether that’s licks or whole songs. ‘ }

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